Sabbatai Zevi and the Jewish Imagination
The Patriarchs came to the world in order to restore the primal integrity of the senses, and accomplished this with four of them. Then Sabbatai Zevi came and restored the primal integrity of the fifth sense, the sense of touch, which—according to Maimonides and Aristotle—is mankind’s disgrace, but which, through Sabbatai Zevi, became praiseworthy and glorious.
—18th-century Sabbatian homily
Modern experience has taught us to recognize that in the particular past which we choose to rediscover, we discover ourselves—that is, we find out who we are and, in the older sense of the word “discover,” we reveal, or expose, ourselves. This, at any rate, has repeatedly been the case since the 18th century, when people first began to look at the past in the full lucidity of historical perspective, out of a steady awareness of essential differences in the feel of human experience in different ages. Thus, the rediscovery of the middle ages by English writers in the last decades of the 18th century represented a final turning away from the age of reason, or rather solid common sense, that had begun with Hobbes, Locke, and the neoclassical writers after them: symptomatically, the term “Gothic,” which was synonymous with “barbaric” for Pope and Swift, came to suggest rich and alluring realms of passionate adventure by the end of the century. In a similar way, the fascination that the primitive past has held for the modern age, since the time of Frazer, obviously reflects the underlying concerns and confusions of our own cultural predicament: out of a sense of sapped vitality, we turn to dark wellsprings of archaic life; out of a radical disenchantment with the weary and destructive course of Western history, we fill our inner vacuity with visions of ages when that history had scarcely begun, of places it never touched.
Now, in the varieties of Jewish experience undertaken since the French Revolution, it is the biblical past which has often served the purpose of focusing the self-awareness of the present. For the Reform movement in 19th-century Germany, the Bible was, of course, the source of those eternal verities that had been hidden or disguised by the encrustations of rabbinic law. There is, however, little attempt to reconstruct the life of the past imaginatively in this Reform use of the Bible as the artificial prop for a shaky ideology. In the early stages of modern Hebrew literature, on the other hand, the return to the Bible did involve a real immersion in the biblical past. The language of the new poetry and fiction, after all, was often the language of the Bible itself, in syntax, idiom, imagery; and many writers of the Hebrew Enlightenment struggled heroically to imagine anew, out of the bleakness and impotence of their lives in Exile, the sun-blessed warmth and vigor of life on the land when their forefathers tilled and defended it. There is an inner connection, therefore, between the literary return to the biblical past of the Hebrew Enlightenment and the physical return to the land of the Bible first envisioned by the proponents of Hibat Zion (Love of Zion) in the 1860′s and fully realized by the Zionist movement. It is perfectly understandable that the Bible should still be given inordinate emphasis in Israel’s schools and official cultural programs; implicit in the concentration on this particular stretch of the past is a rejection or at least depreciation of the long stretch of diaspora history which followed it.
The Bible alone, however, has generally proved to be a less than faithful mirror for the troubled face of the present, and Jews over the last few decades have attempted with increasing frequency to discover themselves through the recollected world of East European Jewry—most notably through the evocation of Hasidism, which, as an enthusiastic movement of inner liberation, has provided the most congenial material for humanistic reinterpretation or simply for sentimental distortion. What may at first seem surprising is that a messianic movement which, despite some affinities with Hasidism, is in important respects its diametric opposite, a movement which completely contradicts our cherished notions of European Jewish life as an innocent sphere of quaint or touching piety, should also have a powerful hold on the modern Jewish imagination.
In circles that have remained closely in touch with Jewish history—which, by and large, has meant among readers of Hebrew or Yiddish—the figure of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century pseudo-messiah, has in recent times possessed a strange magnetism. It is suggestive that Abraham Mapu (1808-1867), who initiated the Hebrew novel with a book set in the time of Isaiah, soon afterward began work on a novel called The Visionaries (of which only a fragment has survived) dealing with the Sabbatians. The subject has been treated by Sholem Asch (in Yiddish), by Israel Zangwill (in English), by Haim Hazaz (in Hebrew), and, of late, most impressively, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, again in Yiddish. In Jewish scholarship, moreover, during the past thirty years, Sabbatianism has become one of the great subjects of research. Most of this activity has been directly influenced by Gershom Scholem, who first announced the program for a general reassessment of Sabbatianism in an essay written in 1937, Mitzvah ha-Baah Ba-’aveirah (the untranslatable Hebrew title, which alludes to a Sabbatian reinterpretation of a talmudic concept, might be roughly paraphrased as “The Way of Holy Sinning”); Scholem’s two-volume work in Hebrew on Sabbatai Zevi, published in 1957, stands as one of the major achievements of modern Jewish historiography.
The impression one gets from the usual handbooks of Jewish history or from the standard encyclopedias—all of them based on the hostile and misinformed scholarship of the 19th century—is that Sabbatianism was merely a bizarre and transient episode in Jewish history. A deluded Turkish Jew, his brain addled by mystic studies, pronounces the ineffable name of God to an assembled congregation in Smyrna. After he persists in committing this and other forbidden acts, the local rabbis banish him, and eventually he makes his way to Palestine, where he meets up with a very young man called Nathan of Gaza, who, unlike Sabbatai Zevi, has a genius for both theology and propaganda. Nathan manages to convince the older man that he, Sabbatai, is the Messiah, son of David, something he seems inclined to have believed at times anyway, and the two begin to look fervently for the imminent unfolding of the redemption, perhaps in the next year, 1666. Sabbatai returns to Smyrna to announce his mission while Nathan, his “prophet,” busies himself sending out emissaries to the far reaches of the diaspora, bearing the good tidings. Almost everywhere, masses of Jews respond to the call of redemption. Sabbatai Zevi proceeds to Constantinople, where his followers expect him to take the crown from the head of the sultan. Instead, he is imprisoned for inciting resurrection; after being detained in what proves to be grand state in the fortress at Gallipoli—the divinely appointed bastion, his followers believe, from which he will soon emerge for the last great battle with the forces of evil—he is summoned to judgment and offered the choice between death by slow torture and conversion to Islam; unhesitatingly, he assumes the fez.
Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy strikes Jews everywhere with the profoundest consternation and despair; in its aftermath, only small sectarian groups of the “faithful” cling to the belief in his messiahship, explaining that he has entered into the realm of defilement in order to redeem or conquer evil at its very source. Some of the faithful imitate their master by themselves converting; others engage in orgiastic rites in order to emulate the audacious plunge of the redeemer into the sphere of impurity. A century later, when the social, political, and intellectual horizons of the Jewish people begin to enlarge significantly with the advent of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Sabbatianism seems like a bad dream, a last sickly residue of what were still the Jewish middle ages.
In contrast to this general image of Sabbatianism, which owes much to the rationalistic bias of 19th-century Jewish historiography, Scholem has tried to understand the subject sympathetically, as a manifestation of religious consciousness, not merely of psychopathology. Above all else, he has sought to demonstrate that Sabbatianism, far from being a strange passing episode, is in effect the beginning of modern Jewish history. He is able to establish through a careful and exhaustive examination of contemporary documents that the proportions of Sabbatianism, both in the lifetime of Sabbatai Zevi and afterward, were far greater than the official “Jewish” versions of the events have led us to believe. During those hectic months of messianic jubilation before the apostasy, opposition to Sabbatai Zevi in all but a few places was negligible or simply did not exist. Revered rabbis, adepts of the Law, pillars of the various communities, believed without question in Sabbatai’s messiahship; the minority who had doubts kept prudently silent for the most part in the face of the fervid enthusiasm of the Jewish populace. Until the apostasy, then, there was no Sabbatian “sect”; one must rather say that Sabbatai Zevi, with only minor exceptions, was the acclaimed Messiah of the Jewish people, from Yemen to Galicia, from Tunis to Amsterdam. Scholem also shows that very considerable numbers of Jews still adhered to the belief in Sabbatai, and the imminent redemption he would bring, for nearly a century after his death. The most essential point, however, of Scholem’s revisionist history is that for a brief moment almost the whole Jewish people was convinced it was living in the presence of the dawning redemption—the ithalta d’geulah—and that many would never again be able to accept their unredeemed, restricted lives as ghetto Jews in the same unquestioning way. A passage in which Scholem discusses the new relation to rabbinic law into which the Sabbatian experience thrust Jews touches on a crux of his argument and also reveals a chief source for his own fascination with the whole Sabbatian phenomenon:
The believers were able to develop a new criterion with which to measure ghetto reality. This ghetto Judaism had been and was still upheld by the “infidels” who denied the Redeemer’s mission, men who possessed the mere body of the Torah and not its innerness. It would not be long before some of the believers would come, whether in extreme or moderate forms, to a criticism of rabbinic Judaism. And that criticism, it must be emphasized, would be from within, not primarily dependent upon the influence of external causes and historical circumstances, like the criticism evoked in the period of the French Revolution and in the age of struggle for political rights for the Jews. . . . And if the traditional forms no longer fit the paradoxical values upon which the movement stood, they would have to seek new and other expressions for their utopian Jewish consciousness. For their consciousness was Jewish and remained Jewish; even at moments of open conflict with the ruling powers of the traditional Jewish society, the believers did not seek to deny their historical Jewish identity from the start.1
The general effect of Scholem’s pioneering research into Sabbatianism is to turn inside out many of our preconceptions of what is Jewish and what is not. If we think of Jews as tough-minded rationalists, wryly ironic realists, Scholem shows us a whole people emotionally caught up in the most fantastic faith, men and women alike wildly dancing, rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, uttering prophecies. If we think of Jews as people living within tightly drawn lines of legal restriction and self-imposed restraint, Scholem shows us Jews casting off all bonds, entering, so they thought, into a new world of unlimited freedom where, according to the Sabbatian maxim, “the abrogation of the Torah is its true fulfillment.” If we think of Judaism as a broad antithesis to Christianity in some of its most essential assumptions, Scholem shows us Jews insisting on the primacy of faith over works, Jews coming to believe in a trinitarian God of which the Son, or Messiah, is part, Jews arguing—with the traditional method and idiom of rabbinic discourse as well as of the Kabbalah—that the Messiah has taken upon himself seeming disgrace and outward defeat in order to redeem a sinful world. If our stereotype of the pre-modern Jew tends to be a puritanical figure, stern, pale, enveloped in somber cloth, following a faith in which the dominant symbols and institutional arrangements are masculine, Scholem discovers for us a Messiah who awakens the hearts of Jews to the possibilities of serving God through the pleasures of the body, who sings this poignantly sensual Spanish song to the Shekhina at the holy ark, Torah in hand:
When I went up to the mountaintop
When I came down to the river’s edge
I met Meliselda
Who is the Emperor’s daughter
Coming up from the bath
From the bath where she had washed.
Her face flashed like a sword
Her brows were like the bow
Her lips were like corals
And her flesh whiter than milk.
This is not to suggest that Scholem, the disciplined scholar and patient reasoner, so clearly an “Apollonian” figure, is preaching through his scholarship the adaptation of a “Dionysian” form of Jewish life. But what he construes to be the vitality manifested in Sabbatianism is what especially draws him to it, and it is this which he himself emphasizes in the preface to his Shabbtai Tzvi: “The degree of vitality in these phenomena surprises us no less than the degree of daring in them, and the eyes of recent generations have learned to see the spark of Jewish life and the constructive longings even in phenomena which Jewish tradition fought against with all its soul.” Now, vitality is a concept which, when it is not completely self-evident, becomes oddly elusive, and I must say that I find this to be the case with Scholem. One man’s vitality is another man’s sickness, as opposing interpretations of Sabbatianism vividly illustrate. Scholem seems to connect vitality almost axiomatically with antinomianism, though it could easily be argued that antinomianism in general, especially as it moves toward the unbridled excesses to which its inner logic drives it, is rather an expression of cultural, moral, and psychological disintegration, sharing with vitality only the superficial similarity of violent motion. More plausibly, Scholem appears to associate vitality with the return to the full life of the senses that is at least implicit in the urgent messianic expectations of the Sabbatian movement. If the early talmudic masters had taught their disciples to imagine this world as an “anteroom” to the “main hall” of a true world elsewhere, the Sabbatians thought they were seeing the anteroom transformed before their eyes into the inner hall of the palace, and so there is, paradoxically, a powerful impulse toward realizing the fullness of life here and now in the very movement so intoxicated with the heady mysteries of the divine Beyond. Finally, Sabbatianism is an expression of national vitality for Scholem because it begins to look like a movement of auto-emancipation miscarried only because the age in which it occurred made its political implementation unfeasible: Sabbatai Zevi, the manic-depressive kabbalist, is no Theodor Herzl, but it is undeniable that at his call thousands upon thousands of Jews in all parts of the diaspora actually began to pack up their possessions and prepared to march after him to Zion.
“Vitality” has been a great will-o’-the-wisp of Hebrew literature at least since the time of Berditchevski, Schneour, Tchernichowski—the first generation of Hebrew writers to be influenced by Nietzsche—and I think that it is against this background that Scholem’s emphasis on the vitality of Sabbatianism has to be seen. The Sabbatian movement plays much the same role in Scholem’s imaginative vision—and he is a historian who clearly possesses such a vision—as the cults of Baal, Astarte, and Tammuz play in the poetry of Tchernichowski and the latter-day Canaanites after him. Both the pagan gods and the more recent messianic movement embody possibilities of a dramatic “transvaluation of values” for the Jewish people, and Scholem in fact uses the Hebrew equivalent of that Nietzschean formula, shinui ‘arakhim, more than once in describing the Sabbatian program. The Canaanite gods, however, are a convenient literary fiction, a cultural alternative borrowed from the outside that at best merely impinged once upon ancient Israel. Scholem’s model of vitality, on the other hand, is the product of a process immanent in Jewish historical experience. The Sabbatians see themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Jewish past; even as they set about radically transforming the practices and values of Jewish tradition, “their consciousness was Jewish and remained Jewish.” Scholem argues, moreover, that there is some causal connection between them and the 19th-century modernizing movements that sought to change the basic conditions of Jewish existence.
Scholem’s encompassing interpretation of Sabbatianism is so subtly developed that it is hard to know how much of it is really cogent, how much merely seductive. The subject, at any rate, has a seductive allure for him, and I think his relationship to it is finally Faustian, as Faust in Part Two of Goethe’s poem plunges into the depths of the past to capture a beauty and power that will always elude him. This, if I read him right, is what S. Y. Agnon is suggesting about enterprises like Scholem’s in his remarkable tale, Edo and Enam. According to literary gossip in Jerusalem, Dr. Ginath, the enigmatic discoverer of unknown ancient cultures in the story, is in fact an oblique allusion to Agnon’s old friend, Gershom Scholem. (The character’s name might be a clue: there is a medieval kabbalistic work entitled Ginath Egoz, which, like all other kabbalistic works, has been discussed in print by Scholem. The word refers to the “garden” of mystic contemplation.) Twice in the story, a character wonders, jokingly, whether Dr. Ginath might not be sitting in his room writing a third part to Faust. Ginath’s key to the mysteries of the primal past is, in a strangely denatured way, erotic: in the somnambulistic Gemulah he holds the Helen of a civilization older than Troy whom he will never really possess, as Faust never really possesses Helen. There is something both poignant and ghoulish in her love for him, his use of her; and the intrinsic logic of their relationship brings them to mutual destruction. If, at the end of the tale, Ginath leaves after him the luminous life and beauty of the past he has captured in his work for every man to “make use of its light,” that final phrase echoes another a few pages earlier about the ambiguous light of the moon, magically linked to the doomed Gemulah, of which the narrator must warn: “Happy is the man who can make use of its light and come to no harm.”
Agnon, in his symbolic treatment of the characteristically modern quest for sources of renewal in the past, is concerned with the ultimate spiritual dangers of such pursuits, but Scholem’s own scholarly enterprise also has more immediate implications, and as a useful gloss upon them I would like to offer another imaginative work in Hebrew, Haim Hazaz’s play, In the End of Days. The Hazaz play, written in 1950, is in no way a direct comment on Scholem, but it provides an instructive parallel, making explicit the ideological message of Sabbatianism that seems to be implicit for Scholem. The action is set in a German town during the time of Sabbatai Zevi’s ascendancy. Yuzpa, the fiery messianist who is eventually excommunicated for his rebellion against the traditional order, can be taken, with little qualification, as Hazaz’s spokesman in the play, and the doctrine he preaches is the annihilation of the Exile, which for him means a tearing apart of the institutional bonds that held life in the diaspora together: “The strength of the Exile is in Torah, commandments, and the fear of heaven. . . . Torah has been absorbed by Exile, has become synonymous with it.” It begins to be clear why Sabbatian antinomianism should be associated with vitality, for all the heavy restrictions, sodden with the weight of Exile, must be cast off in order to enter the new world of freedom and life: “We will bury ourselves, a burial of the dead in license, in promiscuity and raw instinct, in order to arise from the void and chaos of this world like the sleepers of the dust who are destined to be resurrected, pure and clean and seven times more alive.”
Hazaz, let me emphasize, is not really interested in moral anarchy but rather uses such anarchy as a dramatic symbol for what he conceives as the desperate need to smash the Exile, to extirpate all bonds and allegiances with the world of Exile. The main referent of messianism in his play is not individual and anarchic but collective and political. When Yuzpa interprets Sabbatianism as a call for Jews to seize the reins of their own destiny, we hear in his words a distinctly Zionist modernization of the 17th-century movement; Scholem, as a meticulous scholar, is careful to represent his subject in its own pre-modern religious terms, but he often leads us to infer the same analogy with the modern secular movement of redemption that is forced upon us by Hazaz’s protagonist: “Heaven is in our hands . . . understand that, my friend, understand that. The Redemption depends on us; more than on God Almighty and more than on the Son of David, it depends on us. Not the Messiah alone, but us as well, the whole people of Israel and every single Jew! Great is the Redemption we possess, for we ourselves have conceived it. . . . We decreed and He—must carry it out.”
Although I do not think that Scholem’s superb scholarship can justly be called tendentious, there is surely some connection between his ideological commitment to secular Zionism and his professional commitment to the study of Sabbatianism. If we are generally accustomed to place the rise of Zionism in the context of 19th-century European nationalism, Scholem’s reassessment of Sabbatianism emphasizes a powerful desire for immediate national redemption working through the entire people, an exhaustion of patience with life in exile, which are not dependent upon external influences or the imitation of European models. Scholem finally sees Sabbatianism as a preparation of the ground for modern Jewish nationalism, and he even tries to establish a lineal descent—somewhat sketchily, it must be said—from known Sabbatian families to the first Jewish proponents of Enlightenment, who in turn prepared the way for the beginnings of Zionism. Scholem has been vehemently attacked on this point by Baruch Kurzweil, the Israeli literary and cultural critic, who claims that it represents a spurious attempt to legitimize secular Zionism in Jewish terms, to set it up as the logical and authentic product of a process working within Jewish history before its exposure to the great innovating forces of the modern world. Kurzweil vigorously denies any causal connection between Sabbatianism and the Hebrew Enlightenment, though he bases his argument less on historical documentation than on common sense—perhaps a dangerous criterion in history—and on his deep personal conviction that Sabbatianism is a pathological “borderline phenomenon” from which little can be learned about Judaism in its strength, or about the Jewish people as a whole.
I cannot pretend to the competence needed to resolve the complex question of Sabbatianism’s role in the concatenation of modern Jewish history, but it does not seem to me that the proof of historical causation is indispensable to Scholem’s implicit argument for the contemporary relevance of his subject. The ultimate importance of Sabbatianism for our age, even in Scholem’s case, is as a paradigm and not as an ancestor. In a period when many conscious Jews are trying to sort out the confusions of their own Jewish identity by a renewed confrontation with the variety of the Jewish past, the Sabbatians embody possibilities of Jewish existence, lived in the fullness of “utopian Jewish consciousness,” which are—despite Kurzweil—imaginatively stirring, in any case challenging, and in certain obvious ways deeply disturbing as well. We adopt figures from the past as our contemporaries out of our own needs, regardless of the lines of historical connection with them, and Sabbatai Zevi, the grandly and pathetically deluded Messiah, reaching out for a lustrous world of redemption over the precarious brink of an abyss of anarchy, is, for better or for worse, a distinct contemporary.
The paradox of Sabbatai Zevi’s contemporaneity is allied, I think, to that of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer whose world is older than the crumbling folio pages of a study-house Talmud and yet has seemed to many readers as urgently modern as the last inarticulate cry from the Theater of the Absurd. Singer has none of Scholem’s interest in the ideological inferences that may be drawn from Sabbatianism, but its antinomian frenzy constitutes for him a dark revelation of human nature and of the character of the spiritual reality we inhabit. It should give us pause to note that one of the greatest Jewish scholars of our age and also one of our great Jewish imaginative writers have been powerfully drawn to this same ambiguous subject. (This, incidentally, is one of several respects in which Singer and Agnon offer an instructive contrast. Agnon, for all his imaginative intimacy with spectral ambiguities, remains rooted in what used to be called “normative” Judaism. Although Buczacz, Agnon’s native town, is one of a dozen places singled out by Scholem as centers of underground Sabbatian activity for generations after the death of the false messiah, there is no trace of the presence of Sabbatianism in all Agnon’s fiction about the Buczacz of bygone days, with the exception of the father of the groom in The Bridal Canopy, whose grandfather used to eat a single pea on the fast of Tisha B’Av, hedging his bets, so to speak, on the late redeemer.)
One gets the peculiar impression that Sabbatianism plays a larger role in Singer’s fiction than is actually the case. It is the subject of just one novel, Satan in Goray, and appears in the background of one other, The Slave, while most of the short stories are set in a period well after the conclusion of the Sabbatian movement. This impression, however, is not altogether mistaken because the Sabbatian experience serves as an implicit model or general analogue for what we have come to recognize as the distinctive Singer world, whatever its temporal setting—a world in which humanity, having burst the constricting bands of civilized restraint, hurls itself into a witch’s sabbath of lust and self-debasement.
It is worth noting that Singer in Satan in Goray chooses to refashion Sabbatianism in the image of its final deterioration in the 18th-century orgiastic sect of the sinister Polish Jew, Jacob Frank. A few of the details of the novel, in fact, seem direct borrowings from the career of Frank, like the old castle in which the members of the sect gather at night to wallow together in sexual abominations as a means of hastening the redemption. This is not a serious distortion of historical fact on Singer’s part because Sabbatai Zevi’s own selective but spectacular violations of the Law—perhaps more appositely here, of taboo—clearly pointed the way to a nihilistic rebellion against all moral inhibition. What Scholem observes in contrasting the Sabbatian paradox of the Messiah’s apostasy with the Christian paradox of the Messiah’s crucifixion might be an appropriate motto for the moral world of much of Singer’s fiction: “The paradox . . . of apostasy . . . leads straight into the bottomless pit; its very idea makes almost anything conceivable.” While many modern novelists have written under the shadow of Ivan Karamazov’s warning that if God does not exist everything is permissible, the somber implication of Sabbatianism spelled out here is more strictly appropriate to Singer’s world, which remains unquestionably sacramental, suffused with the presence of divinity, but a divinity that may be ultimately ambiguous, that repeatedly threatens to become a satanic inversion of itself. Singer, in other words, is lucidly aware that the moral abyss opened up by Sabbatianism is also a metaphysical abyss; as Scholem aptly sums up the movement in his chapter on it in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, “To the Sabbatians all reality became dialectically unreal and contradictory. . . . Their God no less than their Messiah bears the mark of such self-contradiction and disintegration.” It is surely Singer’s artistic realization of this threat of self-contradiction in the ultimate nature of reality that, more than anything else, explains his anomalous “modernity.”
Modern literature has in certain memorable instances chosen to search out strange continents and alien races for the dramatic symbols of the Heart of Darkness in all men. Singer’s Sabbatians, by contrast, confront us with a kind of unsettling intimacy because they are, historically, part of us—as thoroughly Jewish as any caftaned, earlocked, pious figure in Peretz or Sholem Aleichem. They represent, to borrow a pointed idiom of the Kabbalah, the Sitra Ahra, The Other Side, of ourselves. Singer’s attitude, moreover, toward his sundry devotees of the demonic is not finally moralistic, and this is probably what most disturbs those of his Jewish readers who have vociferously objected to his “negativism.” We might note in this connection that the attitudes of the pious “Tale of the Dybbuk,” the epilogue to Satan in Goray, are not identical with those of the novel as a whole. If the moralizing narrator of the Tale denounces Reb Gedaliyah, the leader of the heretics, as a “son of Belial and entirely wicked,” the figure of the arch-Sabbatian in the novel itself is somewhat more ambiguous. Reb Gedaliyah is, of course, a bestial man (his body is matted with hair, covered with rolls of fat) who eventually leads his followers into extreme acts of bestiality; but he is also a ministering spirit to the sick, a teacher of speech to the stammering, laughter to the melancholy, simple joy to the young. There is an essential element of playfulness in Reb Gedaliyah that provides a paradoxical continuity between his exuberant geniality, his almost Falstaffian love of mischief, and the moral obscenities he perpetrates. What he promises his followers, after all, is a world of pure spontaneous play, where there is no right or wrong, pure or impure, permitted or proscribed. Singer is horrified by the Utopia of depravity Reb Gedaliyah envisages, and yet he is also at moments responsive to the Sabbatian’s dream of an unchecked flow of self-fulfilling life. Satan in Goray is finally an unresolved novel because the forces of anarchic release it dramatizes cannot be contained by the moral imagination that shapes plots, do not admit of readily conceivable human resolutions.
According to a kabbalistic tradition adopted by the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, there are two Torahs: the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil, which has been revealed to us, and the Torah of the Tree of Life—manifestly, beyond good and evil—which the Redeemer is to reveal. Because the common image of the Jew has been a figure clinging to the first Torah, the man bound by the Law, there is a special piquancy in Sabbatianism’s antithetical image of the Jew committed to a Torah which is all life, unfettered by any law. The serious danger, however, in such alluring antitheses is that life becomes arbitrarily associated with the abandonment of restraints and hence death with the general notion of imposing limits. The experience of the more extreme Sabbatians, culminating in the Frankists, and again, the fate of vitalistic ideologies in modern political history, suggest that the quest for life, so conceived, may produce only its opposite, and that it is the human vocation to try to realize life to the fullest within necessary limits. Perhaps from this ultimate viewpoint there is a greater truth in Singer’s fictional version of Sabbatianism than in Scholem’s massive reconstruction of it, for Singer knows in the very quick of his imagination what Scholem understands finely but often seems unwilling to concede—that the would-be redeemer opened the gates to a world of chaos, not of redemption.
1 The translation of this and subsequent Hebrew texts is mine.